Sometimes it’s fun to jump the gun and engage in some hypothetical debating and/or make some rash proclamations before the NBA season is over—in this case, just past the quarter mark. Lots of things will undoubtedly change before the regular season reaches its conclusion. Injuries, a loss of form from some of the current front-runners, and a rejuvenation from certain individuals currently playing under-par, will certainly alter how we view things once April rolls around. But if the NBA season ended today, and awards were handed out, the following 7 individuals would be holding some silverware.
Executive of the Year: Glen Grunwald
When the season began it seemed like a formality that Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak would win this award. His off-season was rightly lauded, after he traded next to nothing to bring in Steve Nash, and engaged in a 4-way deal that landed Dwight Howard. With the Lakers looking mighty shaky, however, Kupchak winning doesn’t appear to be a lock anymore. Although the Lakers should improve and vaunt him back into contention, as of now, he’s not the frontrunner. That distinction currently belongs to Knicks G.M. Glen Grunwald.
In the off-season the Knicks’ front office was hammered by their fans, and those in the basketball media, for allowing Jeremy Lin to walk, replacing him with Raymond Felton, and signing a multitude of veteran players—the likes of Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, and Rasheed Wallace. But a quarter of the way through the season, Grunwald’s decisions appear to be vindicated. While Lin is struggling in Houston, Felton is excelling in his 2nd stint at MSG, and the veteran players, particularly Kidd, have provided a steadying influence on the team. The Knicks are currently the best team in the Eastern Conference, and Grunwald is looking a lot smarter than the rest of us.
Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson
The Golden State Warriors may not be the best team in the Western Conference—although they’re one of them right now—but considering where they were last season, coach Mark Jackson has worked miracles with this group. Last year the team finished 20 games under .500, and as a rookie coach Jackson spent the year attempting to find his feet and slowly implement his vision—not easy in a season disrupted by the lock out. But so far it seems as though Jackson’s hard work has paid off handsomely.
At the time of writing the Dubs are 16-8 and comfortably in a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference. They’ve been a talented offensive team for a few years, but it’s been the defense that has held them back. Under Jackson’s tutelage this year the team has jumped 9 places in points allowed per game, from 28th last year, to 19th right now. David Lee, a player notorious for his limitations defensively, now looks somewhat competent at that end of the floor. It’s also worth noting that the improvement has come without the injured Andrew Bogut, a player expected to be a key part of the team’s defense—making Jackson’s transformation of this side look even more impressive.
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard
5 players were taken over Damian Lillard in the 2012 NBA draft, but the Trail Blazers point-guard is currently in pole position to win this season’s Rookie of the Year award. Many pre-season predications had Anthony Davis as a shoe-in for the award, but injuries to the Hornets big man have derailed his rookie season and pushed Lillard to the forefront in most peoples’ minds.
However, as unlucky as Davis has been so far this season, it shouldn’t be assumed that Lillard is simply winning by default; the former Weber State standout has played some absolutely fantastic basketball so far this year. A quarter of the way through his first NBA season Lillard is averaging 18 points per game and over 6 assists. Just as impressive has been his poise on the court—illustrated best by his game winner against the Hornets last weekend. Lillard has helped keep a Trail Blazers team that many felt would be near the basement of the Western Conference, firmly in the mix for the 8th seed.
Most Improved Player: Serge Ibaka
When Thunder G.M. Sam Presti signed the very talented, but very raw, Serge Ibaka to a 4-year deal in the summer, many people were shaking their heads. Undoubtedly Ibaka was a special talent, but the deal meant that the team likely wouldn’t extend a max offer to 6th Man of the Year, James Harden. Essentially the Thunder chose Ibaka over Harden, banking on the fact that he’d improve his offensive game to complement his already outstanding skills on the defensive end.
As of this moment Presti’s decision-making looks very astute. Ibaka has been playing the best basketball of his young career this season, upping his points per game tally from 9.1 last season, to 14.6 this year. He’s shooting a fantastic percentage from the field, and his mid-range jumper, which was already beginning to look dangerous in last season’s playoffs, is becoming more and more reliable. On Monday night Ibaka had 25 points and 17 rebounds against the San Antonio Spurs, underlining how much his offensive game has improved. Ibaka’s growth into a Chris Bosh-type role for the Thunder, rather than his previous Marcus Camby one, is a scary prospect for any opposition. Double-teaming Durant and Westbrook is no longer the easy decision it once was.
6th Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford
With all the chaos and dysfunction in Laker-land to begin the season, it’s been easy to forget that the other team in Los Angeles, the Clippers, have had an amazing start to the year. At the time of writing the Clippers are on a 10-game winning streak—the franchises’ longest since they were known as the Buffalo Braves—and are quickly becoming one of the most dynamic and all-round scary teams in the NBA. Of course, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have had a lot to do with the team’s hot start, but it’s been the 2nd unit that has really impressed—a 2nd unit led by Jamal Crawford.
Crawford, a former 6th Man of the Year winner with the Hawks in 2010, is currently looking like a good bet to win the award for a second time. After a dismal season in Portland last year in which he only averaged 13 points per game, and shot under 40% from the field, he’s looked rejuvenated playing in a Clipper uniform. Crawford is currently averaging 16 points per game, and has given the team another option down the stretch in close games, where last season they were overly reliant on Paul to create offense.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah is one of those players that give 110% every night, but is not always given the kind of recognition he deserves. Over the past few years, with Derrick Rose wowing the NBA, and the fans in Chicago, Noah has been somewhat of a forgotten man—essential to his team’s success, but never at the forefront of the casual fan’s thoughts. However, with Rose still rehabbing his knee, and the Bulls desperately trying to hold on to a playoff spot until he returns, Noah is underlining his true value to the team.
With Rose out the Bulls were always going to struggle on offense, and indeed, they’re one of the worst offensive teams in the league, lacking any outside shooting. But Noah’s played like a man possessed on the defensive end, keeping the Bulls competitive in the process. The Bulls are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, in large part thanks to Noah, who is averaging 10.5 rebounds per game, and a career high in blocks (2.2) and steals (1.4). His efforts on the defensive end have kept the Bulls afloat, despite their offensive woes. At this stage of the season he has undoubtedly been the best defender in the NBA.